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Jun 16, 2006: The Rolling Content Inventory

Interesting back-and-forth about content inventories last month (can you tell I'm behind?) between Leisa Reichelt and Donna Maurer, as well as on the IAI-members discussion list. Leisa believes that the formalism of content inventories forces information architects to focus too much on what is, rather than what could be. Donna argues that foregoing content inventories leads to information architectures that are purely top-down, missing out on opportunities to improve content management, content integration, and contextual navigation.

They're both somewhat right, naturally. But both views see content inventory in a traditional light as a one shot deal. And in our ever growing information environments (like, for example, enterprise settings), I'm just not convinced that this traditional approach to content inventory makes sense anymore.

When you've got hundreds or thousands of distributed subsites and other pockets of content, you simply won't not know what's out there. If you send a spider on a content reconnaissance mission, you'll still likely be overwhelmed by the volume of content that turns up. And even if you can send, as one past client put it, an "army of monkeys" to swarm over and survey your content, well, that's not good either. No measure of simians can deal with the jungle truth that your content is a moving target. Any snapshot you take of it will be instantly out of date. And in your efforts to grab a comprehensive view of your content environment, you will surely go insane.

That's why I'm increasingly recommending pursuing a rolling content inventory. Instead of a snapshot, as all those silly IA books suggest, inventory your content on an ongoing basis. Put another way, a content inventory is an process, not a deliverable. Put yet another way, content inventory shouldn't be something that you allocate the first two weeks of your redesign to; allocate 10% or 15% of your job to it instead.

And what would you do during those 4-6 hours each week? Two things: inventory and analyze content as it comes to you, and occasionally embark on short safaris to find quality content to inventory. How does content come to you? Squeaky wheels, such as irritating senior vice presidents and eager product marketers, are pushing their new content down everyone's throats. They may even come to you and ask or demand that their content be added to the site. Don't worry, passivity will net you plenty of stuff to consider.

But much of that content won't be especially strategic to your organization, nor useful to your site's users. So you will have to lift a finger from time-to-time to balance out twhat comes through the content fire hose. You can do this informally, Occasional expeditions will uncover good content that is deserving of being inventoried, analyzed, and ultimately better integrated with your site. You can find it in a variety of relatively inexpensive ways, including:

  • Spidering for new stuff that's worth at least a quick look
  • Looking for spikes in server logs which might indicate content that's new and useful, or newly useful
  • Learning which content is retrieved by site users' most common queries
  • Informal surveying co-workers: "Bud, is there new content that you've stumbled on lately? Have you been using it? What content are you using lately anyway, new or not? Bud, are you there? Bud?..."

I'm sure there are other ways one could discover new and useful content (feel free to suggest some in the comments). Some might even involve asking users directly (gasp), although log analyses do ultimately analyze user behaviors, albeit indirectly.

This all may sound like an uncomfortably informal and piecemeal approach, but we've got to get used to the reality that ongoing, partial content inventories are likely to be far more cost-effective than trying to achieve the perfect, all-encompassing snapshot of our content.

Traditional content inventory methods won't go away; they continue to make sense with small sites that a single information architect can manage. But anyone who is trying to inventory the typical corporate, academic, or governmental site needs to stop tilting at the windmill of comprehensiveness.

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Comment: Donna Maurer (Jun 18, 2006)

So the funny thing is that you're thinking of another type of situation again. Leisa was thinking of smallish design projects, I work mostly on large (1000-20000 page) redesign projects and you are talking about not projects, but lifecycle.

Just shows that one method don't fit all ;)

Comment: Lou (Jun 19, 2006)

Definitely no single method fits all!

Maybe what I'm really railing against isn't just inventories, but redesigns in general. They're evil. And wrong. And we embed one-shot inventories in one-shot redesigns. If we can kill redesigns and focus on constantly improving our sites on a continual basis, content inventories will become part of that continual improvement.

Comment: Donna Maurer (Jun 20, 2006)

But sometimes people are in such a bad spot that they can't make continual improvements - tweaking something that is wholly bad doesn't help any. Sometimes you have to throw out everything, redesign to take a couple of steps up and then do continual improvement from a higher starting point.

I redesign and mentor so people have some skills to do continual improvement. Without that, they'd not be able to...

Comment: ML (Jun 21, 2006)

Thanks for the posting and will review the previous discussions online. I'm actually tackling this perspective with a colleague and knowing there are hundreds(maybe thousands) of pieces of learning content we've started to do a cycle of inventory/analyze. It's been also helpful in organizing our approach for how deep and to what level of complexity for the rest of the inventory.

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